On Christmas Eve, 1776, my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Joshua Davis, purchased some land south of Aycock Swamp in what is now Wayne County, NC. The American revolution had begun, and there was no way of knowing when or how it would end.
In 1781, General Cornwallis marched his troops from Wilmington into Virginia, towards what would be his final stand in the Revolution, passing within just a few miles of Joshua Davis’s farm. I can’t imagine the anxiety of those times.
Study it as you like, you’ll never get a full image of what it was like to live in the past. The world is very different today than it was in 1776, or 1876, or 1976. As I walk through the same fields and forests that were walked through by Joshua Davis, and his children, and his grandchildren, and his great-grandchildren, I cannot understand their lives, their world.
But it would be so much harder for them to try and grasp my life, my world.
I at least have the lens of history and the things left behind to view backwards with; looking forward with any kind of accuracy at all is impossible.
Still, as I consider the nine generations that separate me from my homesteading ancestor, I know that we are connected, and not only by sequences of genetics that have made their way down the bloodline. We are connected by the very land that Joshua Davis purchased on December 24, 1776.
This acreage that I have known since childhood is still the land that he looked on and decided it was good, that he wanted for his own and for his family.
Possession of a place to call one’s own, a place of safety and comfort in which to raise one’s family, has always been a driving force in human actions. Oftentimes this has driven us to cruel wickedness against one another, doing whatever we can to dispossess someone else of their place in the world in order to expand our own.
We humans still have a lot to learn.
God understood the need for us to have a place. After all, in creating the world, God made a place for all creatures. We who claim to be people of the Bible cannot forget the importance of a place for God’s people.
We ought not to overlook the Promised Land’s significance. It is more than just a prize, a conquest for the victorious Hebrew warriors. No, the Promised Land is a part of God’s Covenant with God’s people, and it is through the Promised Land that God will provide for his people.
One important thing we must not forget: the Promised Land is never owned by the Israelites. No, God says in Leviticus 25:23, “… the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.”
I wonder, when Joshua Davis first arrived in North Carolina and started his farm here, did he think he had come to the Promised Land? That is a phrase that was often tossed around in those years of colonialism and western expansion. This America is a new Promised Land, our ancestors were told. Go forth and possess it.
Funny thing, that. We are quick to read in our Bibles about God’s promises and provision. We are quick to get into the stories that we were taught in Sunday school, about Joshua fighting the battle of Jericho, and David the mighty warrior king. We are told to emulate these heroes, even though they did some pretty terrible things.
But when it comes to God’s Word concerning how to live in the Promised Land… we don’t want to read that. It’s boring.
Well folks, I’m here today to tell you… yep, it’s boring.
The book of Leviticus is God’s instructions, for God’s people, on how they are to live within the Covenant, how they are to deal with each other within the Promised Land.
It is very boring.
It is boring because it is rule after rule after rule, do this don’t do that, eat this don’t eat that. It is a slog of a read.
But there is not a book of the Bible that offers a more practical theology.
These rules are God’s instructions for how we who claim to be God’s children ought to live our lives. “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy,” we are commanded multiple times. But then God spells out very specifically just how to go about doing that.
There are some parts that we feel maybe don’t apply to us now. I really don’t need the Bible telling me not to eat a buzzard; I got that one down pat.
But there are other parts of it that we really need to pay attention to, because in the thousands of years since this was written down, we haven’t learned it yet.
You know, things like, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus didn’t make that one up, he was quoting. It’s right here, in the middle of Leviticus.
There are also these parts about land possession and use. We could get bogged down in the nitty gritty details, and the repetition, of what Leviticus teaches about land. But let me do a quick summary:
When the people of Israel entered the Promised Land, the land was divided between them all. Each family got their own tract of land, on which they could grow crops and raise livestock and do whatever needed to be done to provide for themselves. God’s command was that it should always be that way; each of God’s people should be able to provide for themselves and their family. God’s creation is entrusted into our hands for the production of fruitful life.
At the same time, God knows that not everything will go right for us all the time. Such is the nature of a fallen world. Hard times happen. We will always have the poor with us, Jesus says.
So, God provides these rules: if your kinsman or your neighbor has to sell their land to get out of debt, you cannot buy it from them in perpetuity. The land must return to the family, either by purchase or in the Year of Jubilee. (Leviticus 25:23-28)
For those without land, for the poor who cannot provide for themselves, you must give them access to the gleanings of your fields. Do not take everything for yourself, do not strip the land bare. Let the dispossessed come and help themselves. (Leviticus 19:9-10)
Why do these things? Because the Lord our God is holy, and because the land is his.
In my mind, my way of thinking, caring for God’s creation is rooted in the commands that we find in Leviticus.
In our day and age, something that should be as simple as caring for God’s creation has become divisive. We quickly turn to the language of science and the language of politics, and we take sides.
Words like “environmentalist” and even “green” have become rallying points, hills to die on. We cheer on those who use these terms in ways we like, and we denigrate those who don’t.
But when I read scripture, and I look at my family’s farm, I hear God’s command.
“This is my land,” God says, “I’m entrusting it to you. Produce fruitful life. Don’t take too much, don’t leave the land barren, and don’t dispossess others. It is through the earth that I provide for you; take care of it.”
The land I call my family farm would not be mine were it not for my ancestors caring for it. Men and women I never met, whose lives I cannot envision, who could not fathom my own life, loved and took care of what God had entrusted to them, and passed it down to me. Shouldn’t I do the same?
Shouldn’t we all do the same? Not only with our family farms or whatever bit of earth we legally possess, but with all of creation: the land, the water, the air.
Ultimately, caring for God’s creation is loving our neighbors as ourselves. Go, and do likewise.